Monday, January 4, 2010

Taste of the New Year

Happy New Year, Happy New Decade!

My vacation within a vacation - during the winterim break from school, I went to Chicago for a fun getaway over New Year's weekend.  It was frigid outside and the windy city lived up to its reputation.  We had a weekend that was best spent inside.  Luckily the eating, shopping and spa services were indoors and warm.

For New Year's Eve, I got a wonderful treat.  Alinea is a top rated restaurant and we had reservations for their special 10 course dinner.  The whole experience is completely rehearsed - like a choreographed dance.  Someone opens the taxi door, then someone opens the restaurant door, then someone takes our coats and asks our name, says our table is waiting upstairs and someone else leads the way up.  There was no hostess stand, they have memorized the guest list and where the reservations are throughout the two floor restaurant.  Someone even escorts you to the door leading to the restrooms - ha!  Once we were seated, a server brought our first set of silverware on pillow-plates.  Throughout the meal I noticed they rearrange the plates into a different position on the table depending on the course and the different silver provided. 

The menu showed the highlights of each course and the wine pairings were listed on a vellum overlay that lined up perfectly to show when each new wine would come out.  Check out the menu below.

The larger the circle by the course name, the larger the dish.  The small circles were single bite courses.  The further to the left the course name was printed, the heavier the dish.  Shortribs were the heaviest, goose towards the lighter end.  As each course was presented, a server introduced the dish, told us what flavors to expect, how to eat it if special instructions were required and any other interesting info.  The wine specialist was a riot.  Picture a young Einstein with crazy eyes - his hair was long and spiked into every direction.  He was very knowledgeable about wines and their history.  His introduction of the glass he poured was often so exciting, we sometimes couldn't understand what he said! 

The whole meal was intense and amazing.  I'll try not to go overboard, but I want to share some highlights.  The Osetra was a play on traditional caviar served on toast.  On top there was a foam flavored as toast.  The caviar was below on a light cream layer.  Then to the side was a little scoop of lemon flavored cream that gave just the right kick as you scooped through each part of the dish.  The toast-foam was crazy.  It was salty like crispy toast and really flavored the dish even though the texture was unexpected.

This course was the Matsutake.  It was probably the prettiest.  At nine o'clock position, a piece of pan seared otoro tuna with a sprig of something green on top.  The egg looking thing at eleven o'clock was sorbet made of yuzushu.  The server was VERY excited because apparently the chef often cooks with the juice of this Japanese fruit that looks like a clementine, but this is the first time they have had the actual fruit in the restaurant.  She shaved some of the fruit zest onto the top part of the plate.  The sorbet served as a palate cleanser because the flavors were all so different.  Some of the drizzles sauces were mango, not sure what else.  The romaine leaf spine was infused with sake and beneath the leaf was a homemade tortilla chip which was so light, crispy and salty... I could have munched on a pile of those with salsa all day.  On the chip was the pine layer.  It had pine nuts, and something that grew at the base of pine trees and therefore had a pine flavor.  There was a light crunch to that part that I enjoyed.  Coming down from twelve o'clock was a pate of some kind.  It was good, but I'm not a huge pate fan.  When I got the sauces in a bite with it, I enjoyed.  The colorful squares at seven o'clock were like fruit leathers with edible flowers sprinkled on top.  They were quite good.  The wine with this course was like nothing I had ever tasted.  It was described by our "Winestein" as light, but not lacking in flavor.  It was crazy.  I took a sip and the white wine was as he described - there was so much going on but not in a heavy way.  I didn't care for it alone, but it worked quite well with the assortment of food.

I'm sitting in front of one of my favorite dishes of the night.  It tasted like Christmas!!  A bowl full of juniper sprigs was delivered to the table and one of the pieces had a tempura fried ball on the end - kind of like a pine lollipop.  We were instructed to slide off the fried ball into our mouths in one bite.  The scent of the juniper was yummy and the flavors inside the ball were so delicious - goose, stuffing, and prunes.  It was like a delicious holiday meal in one bite. 

For the black truffle course we were told not to try to scoop the dark sauce at the bottom - that was just the table showing through the dish with no bottom!  There was a spoon sitting in the dish with a one-bite ravioli noodle that had a parmesan shaving on top.  The server said to be careful our mouths completely closed when we bit down so we didn't squirt the inner sauce on each other.  Then, the flavor explosion.  Wow.  It was like an entire bowl of french onion soup - the beef and mushroom flavors and the richness of a stick of butter all in one bite. 

With the shortrib course, the wine was very powerful.  It was from Sicily and the company that produces it is changing the industry.  They basically throw grapes in plastic barrels and let them ferment so the end product isn't so processed.  It had no sulfites for preservatives and the taste was strong and raw. 

 Oh eggnog!  Floating in a shot glass with liquors I've never even heard of was a little ball like thin white chocolate that was filled with eggnog batter and sprinkled with nutmeg.  You take the shot and the ball explodes in your mouth.  SOO good! 

Back to the hotel for a little nap after all the rich food and drink and then we walked to the lakefront.  It was so cold we didn't last long so we headed back for a fun little party for the countdown in the hotel bar.  Happy 2010!

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